WASHINGTON -- A group of 19 senators led by Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday, urging him not to remove Malaysia from the U.S. government's formal list of the world's worst human trafficking offenders.
In early July, Reuters reported that the State Department planned to upgrade Malaysia's "Tier 3" human trafficking status -- the worst category in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report -- to a "Tier 2." Doing so would allow the Obama administration to evade trade restrictions with Malaysia, after Congress passed legislation blocking trade perks for Tier 3 nations. Malaysia is a key nation involved in the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that the U.S. is leading with 11 nations.
In the letter, senators said that upgrading Malaysia would weaken the U.S. government's international credibility on human rights issues.
"Fighting human trafficking is one of the great moral challenges of our time," the senators wrote. "It is therefore with grave concern that we now hear Malaysia may be upgraded in this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report based on developments that occurred after the end of the review period. A premature upgrade of Malaysia would undermine the integrity of the TIP report process and compromise our international efforts to fight human trafficking."
Years of complacency from the Malaysian government have fostered an ugly sex slave industry, which includes trade in men, women and children, according to 2014 State Department documents. Forced labor is commonplace in the nation's electronics industry, and government officials are widely believed to profit from human trafficking. This year, mass graves for trafficking victims were discovered near Malaysia's northern border with Thailand. As recently as April, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia called for the country to take prosecution of human trafficking violations more seriously.
Seventeen Democrats signed the letter along with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
The reporting period for the 2015 TIP list closed in March. Since then, the Malaysian government has passed a law providing additional protections for victims of human trafficking. Human rights advocates view the new legislation as a minor step, noting that human trafficking has long been formally outlawed in Malaysia. Those laws have simply not been enforced.
"This is not a gray area," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, on a conference call with reporters last week. "Not even close." Sifton said Congress and the State Department inspector general should investigate if Malaysia is ultimately upgraded.
"An unwarranted upgrade for Malaysia in the 2015 report, especially if based on actions undertaken after the closing of the 2015 reporting period, would weaken the credibility of our TIP ranking system," Wednesday's letter reads. "Ultimately, it would undermine the value of the TIP review process to obtaining meaningful international progress on human rights."
The letter was signed by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Portman and Rubio.